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  • Lost Knowledge: The Concept of Vanished Technologies and Other Human Histories by Benjamin B. Olshin
  • Guan Zeng-Jian (bio)
Lost Knowledge: The Concept of Vanished Technologies and Other Human Histories By Benjamin B. Olshin. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. 458.

Human history, as recorded in written accounts, covers only a small period of time compared to what is known as prehistory, human civilization before the use of writing. Prehistoric civilization is commonly understood through the interpretation of historical sites and archaeological excavations. But is there any other way to understand this period? And does other evidence shed light on questions such as whether the development of human civilization is linear, or an alternation of periodic [End Page 237] growth and decline? How did the dissemination of human knowledge, especially in prehistoric times, proceed? These are the issues Benjamin B. Olshin explores in his book Lost Knowledge.

Olshin has his own understanding of the above problems. He believes that the development of human civilization may be cyclical, and in the prehistoric period it may also reach a level beyond our imagination, but the literature fails to record this. Knowledge passed on from generation to generation orally will eventually exist in various legends in a certain deformation. Olshin's book describes a new method to interpret the technical knowledge that may exist in the prehistoric period from these legends.

Olshin focuses on the technical knowledge of the prehistoric period, especially ideas about machines and equipment. This decision makes sense, because if we want to understand societies at that time, it is crucial to understand their technical knowledge and their level of technological achievement, as these expressed and shaped, to a large extent, those societies.

In explaining his choice of materials, Olshin writes that "it is important to understand that technological descriptions are bound to appear in works—even fictional ones—produced by any society that is making devices and experimenting with technology, even in an informal way" (p. 166). The word "informal" here means the materials the author used were not official historical documents. This argument relates to his understanding of knowledge dissemination. The author states that in prehistorical times, knowledge about various crafts and technologies was passed down without the organizational structures such as schools or guilds that assumed this role in later times. Oral transmission from generation to generation has made myths and folk tales the main carriers for preserving and disseminating these knowledges and therefore provides a glimpse of the basic appearance of ancient technical knowledge. To find evidence of prehistorical technology, the author does not focus on ancient sites and archaeological discoveries, but on early texts. He claims that their authors expressed the ancient technical characteristics they knew, thus proving the existence of these ancient technologies. This is an approach not many historians and archaeologists have applied.

Another commendable aspect of Lost Knowledge is its attention to cultural diversity. The author traces a diverse range of technologies, including legends of aircraft, magic mirrors, the missing land of Atlantis, the story of Gyges and his magic ring in Plato's Republic, etc. For each technology, the author has collected descriptions from cultural regions as wide ranging as Europe, East Asia, South Asia, Oceania, and Native American lands. This makes for a colorful narrative and supports the author's conjecture about the mode of knowledge dissemination.

The weakness of the author's argument is that he rarely analyzes the purpose and nature of these texts. He does not clearly explain whether the technical knowledge he describes really existed at the time, despite strongly [End Page 238] suggesting it did. This would require comparison with historical relics and archeological evidence. Nevertheless, this book makes us aware that myths and legends may shed some light on the history of technology.

Guan Zeng-Jian

Guan Zeng-jian is a distinguished professor at the School of Humanities, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He presided over the 2015 China National Social Science Fund major project "The History of Metrology in China" and has published the books Kao Gong Ji: The World's Oldest Encyclopaedia of Technologies (Brill, 2019) and Geschichte der chinesischen Metrologie (NW Press, 2016) in cooperation with Konrad Herrmann.

Citation: Zeng-jian, Guan...


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pp. 237-239
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